Augustine Birrell, KC (January 19, 1850 - November 20, 1933), was an English author and politician.
He was the son of a Nonconformist minister, was born near Liverpool. He was educated at Amersham Hall school and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He went to the bar, and gradually obtained a good practice; in 1893 he became a KC, and he was professor of law at University College from 1896 to 1899.
It was as a witty, stylish literary critic that he first became known, with his volume of essays entitled Obiter Dicta (1884). In 1889, he was returned to parliament for Fife West, in Scotland, as a Liberal. In the House of Commons his light but pointed humour gradually led to the coining of a new word, birrelling. His characteristic style carries over to his books on copyright and on trusts.
A second series of Obiter Dicta appeared in 1887. Res Judicatae in 1892 and various other volumes followed, establishing his as a man of letters. Birrell was first married in 1878, but his wife died next year, and in 1888, he married Mrs Lionel Tennyson, daughter of the poet Frederick Locker (Locker-Lampson).
At the general election of 1900, he preferred to contest the Manchester North East seat rather than retain his seat in Fife, but was defeated. In 1903 he was President of the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club and gave the Toast to Sir Walter at the clubs annual dinner. He did service, however, to his party by presiding over the Liberal Publication Department, and at the general election of 1906, he was returned for the division of Bristol North. He had been included in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet, and as President of the Board of Education he was responsible for the education bill which was the chief government measure in their first session. But the prolonged controversy over the bill, and its withdrawal in the autumn owing to the refusal of the government to accept modifications made by the House of Lords in the denominational interest, made his retention of that office impossible, and he was transferred (January 1907) to the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland, which he subsequently retained when H. H. Asquith became prime minister in 1908.
In the session of 1907, he introduced an Irish Councils bill, a sort of half-way house to Home Rule; but it was unexpectedly repudiated by a Nationalist convention in Dublin and the bill was promptly withdrawn. His prestige as a minister, already injured by these two blows, suffered further during the autumn and winter from the cattledriving agitation in Ireland, which he at first feebly criticized and finally strongly denounced, but which his refusal to utilise the Crimes Act made him powerless to stop by the processes of the ordinary law; and the scandal arising out of the theft of the Dublin crown jewels in the autumn of 1907 was a further blot on the Irish administration. On the other hand his scheme for a reconstituted Irish Roman Catholic university was very favorably received, and its acceptance in 1908 did much to restore his reputation for statesmanship as well as the introduction of a compulsory tenant land purchase scheme, the Birrell (Irish) Land Act (1909).
He continued in office for nine years in all, resigning in 1916 after the Easter Uprising. He did not defend his seat in the 1918 general election.
The majority of his literary work was published before 1906, but he returned to literature with a further volume of essays and book reviews, More Obiter Dicta (1920) and Etc Caetera. His autobiography, Things past redress was published posthumously.
The critic Francis Birrell (1889–1935) was his son.
Marquess of Londonderry
President of the Board of Education
Chief Secretary for Ireland
Henry Edward Duke
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopędia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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- Works by Augustine Birrell at Project Gutenberg
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